Sierra Leone: Interview with Johan Klang

Johan Klang

General Manager (Radisson Blu Mammy Yoko Hotel Freetown)

Johan Klang

What are the main comparative advantages of Sierra Leone has compare to other West African countries?

Sierra Leone, and especially the Freetown peninsular area have got some of the best beaches and attractions for tourism that some West African countries have difficulties with - the current of the oceans and the tides makes some swimming areas in other countries slightly more difficult, whereas the peninsular part of Freetown has some excellent safe beaches. That is one comparative advantage when you compare Sierra Leone to Guinea, Liberia, etc.



What are the business opportunities this country has to offer? Why do you think people should come and invest in this country and not elsewhere? What do Sierra Leone has to offer for the business community?

I have been here for less than six (6) months and I find that people are very open and friendly. They want investment to happen and they want to see growth. Many of my generation remember that back in the 80s before the civil war, they were regular weekly flights. Several of them were from Italy, France etc.… and everybody would like to see that come back. Sierra Leone had a rice industry that actually exports it. So there is a history of entrepreneurship, a history of doing business and a lot of these people would like to see that re-enter the business market.



Do you think business is recovering from the Ebola tragedy and what has yet to be done in order to speed up the process?


I think the country is reliant upon the international markets commodities prices. Some of the key businesses have to get going first in order to drive the rest. For instance, the mining industry whether it is for the rutile, the diamonds or the iron ores, have always been the backbone of Sierra Leone’s economy. However, none of these guys are going to dig the holes until prizes change in the world market and the country is very much dependent upon that.



The tourism sector has always been over shadowed here by other sectors such as mining and transport. However, the country has wonderful beaches and beauties within their unique national parks – What are the main challenges in your sector and what opportunities you can foresee?

The government has made it clear that tourism should be one of the sectors that are promoted to develop and the reason behind it is that tourism industry compares to the mining industry or construction industry hires more people per invested dollar as such. We can be a good industry for employment. In the tourism industry, you can get a lot of one-man businesses - for example, somebody who opens a small café business with his family. If we could get the tourism industry going with regular flights from Europe, the European market will open a lot of opportunities for Sierra Leone. We are talking about six (6) hours flight from most of the European cities and people in Europe today fly for fifteen (15) hours to get to Thailand and the weather in Thailand and the weather in Sierra Leone are about the same. The challenge is how we get perceptions to change in Europe or worldwide and then get families to decide to come into the country for holidays.



What can be done in the short term to improve tourism?


There are certain short-term things that can be done in order to make sure tourist feel comfortable from the infrastructure point of view - repairing roads, making sure that electricity comes and is not cut off regularly. These are projects within the government plans.



Can you give a little history about Radisson Blu here in Sierra Leone?


The Radisson Blu brand in Africa mainly works on a management contract deal. Basically, local partners own the hotel building and as the local partner does not have the competency or the network to run a hotel, they have contacted a number of hotel management companies. The contacted the Radisson Blu and after taking a look, we can either decline or accept. In case we accept, we make sure that the property is changed or developed into our style. The hotel was built in 1980 and was then run by the French until the end of the 80s, and they left before the civil war. During the civil war, the hotel was empty for a while. After the civil war it was the headquarters of the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces. By the early 2000s, the owners contacted several different hotel chains and eventually we got the contract. The hotel runs as a hotel but not under any brand. It was closed for full renovation for about two (2) years. Finally, we opened in April 2014.



Do you have any other strategy within the Sierra Leone market as Radisson Blu?


Well the Radisson Blu brand is one of the largest hotel chains in Africa. We have twenty-eight (28) open hotels at this time, we have another fifteen (15) that will be opened within the next year; that is three (3) in South Africa, two (2) in Nigeria, and we have in Benin, Ghana, etc. We are always looking at growing our portfolio. Should we then be approached with the right property or the right location, we will definitely be interested in opening a second hotel here in Sierra Leone.



As the leading hotel here in Sierra Leone there is competition coming up. What is your strategy to always stay on top of things?

Well, we constantly try to make sure our staffs are trained, motivated as we bring in expert from within our chain to come and teach different things. At the same time, a hotel needs constant upgrading so it does not look tired or look like an old product. So it is a matter of spending $10 a day rather than spend a $100 a month.



What is your ambition for Radisson Blu and some last words about the future of this country?

My ambition is definitely that we remain the hotel of Sierra Leone. I will like us to become a reference hotel for West Africa. Therefore, when people talk about West Africa, they will mention us in the same breath as other leading hotels in West Africa. I will love to see Sierra Leone take steps forward to leave behind past shadows so that the country can become a strong key player in West Africa. It has the potential; it has a history of being one of the leading countries in sub-Sahara.